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Moviemakers Hit And Miss In Converting Plays Into Film

Fri., Jan. 20, 1995

So when did the movies start going to the theater again? Back in the days when films were learning to talk, Broadway and Hollywood maintained a frosty marriage of convenience. The movies had big bucks and a cultural inferiority complex; the theater had tony scripts, writers who understood dialogue and actors who didn’t need elocution lessons.

So the studios imported New York talent wholesale and did perverse, sanitizing things to plays like “Strange Interlude” (1932) and “Design for Living” (1933). It became increasingly clear, though, that the two art forms spoke different languages.

And while Hollywood continued to buy up Broadway’s hits, commercial (never mind artistic) success on stage was no guarantee of similar results on film. (Think of much of Neil Simon; think, with a shudder, of “A Chorus Line,” which Richard Attenborough turned into a film in 1985.)

It is, of course, a very different game today. The theater now looks to Hollywood stars to provide the cachet that stage actors once lent to the movies, and films regularly are turned into plays (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Sunset Boulevard,” the forthcoming adaptation of “On the Waterfront”).

Still, the last six months have seen an unusual glut of films that began life on the so-called legitimate stage.

It would be gratifying to report that some clear-cut rules have emerged: that all talk, no action makes for a dull movie; that talented movie stars can turn a juicy stage part into a cinematic tour de force, or that directors fluent in stagecraft will get lost behind a camera. Forget it. As the following list of plays-intomovies demonstrates, all bets are off.

“Vanya on 42nd Street”: All talk, no action, no lush period settings and it’s Chekhov, for heaven’s sake, which usually lies on the screen like, well, a dead sea gull. But Louis Malle’s intimate, infinitely careful filming of stage director Andre Gregory’s work in progress - in which a superb ensemble performs Chekhov’s chronicle of dashed hopes in a derelict theater in their street clothes - triumphantly beats the odds.

Watching this movie, you appreciate the superstition about the camera as a thief of souls.

“The Madness of King George”: Face it, Nicholas Hytner, who also directed the stage version of Alan Bennett’s historical drama as well as the exquisite revival of “Carousel,” can do no wrong. This elegantly trimmed-down meditation on the nature of sanity and a world in social flux - with Nigel Hawthorne, in splendid form, in the title role he created on stage - brings 18th-century England to life with the spaciousness and galloping momentum that Tony Richardson brought to “Tom Jones”. (The movie opens nationally Friday).

“Oleanna” (on video in June): What happened? Mamet’s two-character exercise in sexual fisticuffs in academia made for electric theater. Here, with Mamet directing and the wonderful William H. Macy interpreting Mamet-speak as only he can, the results still seem leaden and lugubrious. Perhaps scripts that are essentially debates need the visceral give-and-take that only theater can generate?

“Death and the Maiden”: See “Oleanna.” Roman Polanski’s version of Ariel Dorfman’s play about a political torture victim’s revenge faces the same problems and solves them with only marginally greater success. Despite Polanski-style Gothic trappings (he does great, sinister things with a roasted chicken) and Sigourney Weaver recalling Jane Fonda at her angriest, the screenplay, by Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias, has the admonitory blatancy of a wagging finger.

“What Happened Was … “: The sort of sliceof-life naturalism that isn’t all that different whether on stage or screen, where the illusion being strived for is of an unmediated reality. Tom Noonan’s story of a date between two “Marty”-ish loners, well-acted by Noonan and Karen Sillas, purports to present real people saying real things in real time in a single setting. (There is one terrific, surreal moment involving a doll’s house that could never be achieved on stage.) Liked the play? You’ll like the movie.

“Nell”: Yes, it, too, comes from a play, Mark Handley’s “Idioglossia.” (Wonder why they didn’t keep that title.) But the movie, which was developed by Jodie Foster’s production company and has been directed by Michael Apted, is mostly an occasion for Foster to act her heart out as a feral mountain woman with her own cryptic language. The cliches about emotional growth and the Sierra Club calendar vistas are pure Hollywood.


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